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Friday, September 30, 2022

Bless the Dying: Ebola, Hurricanes, and 2022

 Ten days ago, Uganda declared an Ebola outbreak in the centre of the the country. Mubende District and the contiguous districts east and west have now reported 50 cases and 24 deaths. Numerical exactness remains elusive early in an epidemic, because it takes a cluster of deaths to even raise suspicions, and by the time a suspect person reaches a regional referral hospital and the alert doctors there consider testing what looks like malaria (fever, vomiting, diarrhea, some bleeding, extreme weakness)  for a hemorrhagic fever virus . . . there is a lot of damage to control.  So those 50 cases are actually 31 positive tests; the other 19 are suspected by history. Those 24 deaths occurred in 6 patients among the 31 test-confirmed cases, but we are also counting 18 deaths among the 19 suspected cases. Meaning that looking back a few weeks, at least 18 people who died in the area were already buried in a cluster of families that all have connection to people now testing positive. Uganda has sprung to action. There are press conferences and informative posters urging caution and isolation and good hygiene. Hospitals around the country are setting up isolation wards and setting aside protective gear. We have a Uganda Viral Research Institute that identified the Sudan strain of the virus in the first sample sent, so we didn't have to wait for distant labs. UVRI is supposed to have a mobile lab in Mubende by today.  Four doctors, a med student, and an anesthetic officer are among the patients who have tested positive now amongst the 414 contacts being observed.

For us, an Ebola epidemic of this size in this country carries a heavy weight of memory. In 2007, Ebola crossed into our population here in Bundibugyo with a brand new viral strain that took time to identify. At that time there were four of us doctors in Bundibugyo, and we had all seen suspect patients. Two were infected; Scott and I were not. Our dearest friend here, Dr. Jonah Kule, died, while Dr. Sessanga recovered. Bundibugyo lost a treasure in Dr. Jonah, and 4 other health care workers (nurses, eye assistant, clinical officer). That is a long and sorrowful story for another day but it does give us a sobering context for 2022. 

Because safety is not our final promise, or goal. Not all prayers for healing are answered.

No one needs to be convinced of that, though we often seem to pretend that it could be true if one were just more holy, more committed, more intelligent, more hard-working.  Right now Florida is being stomped by a category 4 hurricane, a powerful violent storm of wind and wave surge and rain. The Americas have had a disproportionately severe outcome from COVID which is now the 3rd leading cause of death in the USA. Not to mention school shootings and the war in Ukraine and rebel attacks and a million small stories of lost babies and unexpected cancer and dwindling parents or grandparents. Grief stalks each and every one of us. In our hearts, we feel like Uganda has had more than her share of grief, so another Ebola epidemic really seems hard.

As a team we continue through Tish Harrison Warren's Prayer in the Night. And this week we got to the phrase, bless the dying. Very poignant for all of us as Ebola percolates in our country (it's not here in Bundibugyo we just feel the fragility of our medical system and are realistic about human behaviours that could lead to dissemination). The Forrest family just traveled to California to the memorial for Kacie's dad who died. And my cousin died this week too. We share the same name (!) and she's just two years older than me, someone who always seemed admirably stylish and hip as we vacationed together growing up, and someone whom I grew to admire on new levels as an adult (though sadly at a great distance) as she faithfully and loyally held onto her family and overcame addiction . . . only to be saddled with early and metastatic cancer. 

cousin Jennifer far left, last visit with her a year ago

Warren writes richly that "bless the dying" in the early church was steeped in paradox: that God can heal but eventually all of us die, that death is our final enemy but also gain, that we are right to hate death while at the same time we embrace in faith the truth that death is not the end. That death, specifically the horrifically painful and unjust crucifixion of Jesus, was the means of the redemption of all things. That on the other side of death, we await resurrection. And yet none of those truths obviate the human experience of grief. We cry. We pray. We wait. We work.

Sitting in 2022, whether in a rainstorm in the southeastern USA or in the Ebola zone in Uganda, this is our hope. Not that we will be spared all suffering and never fall sick or die, but that our dying would be blessed.  Blessed one day in dying like Jennifer, in her sleep, in her home, her daughter having arrived that day, after a month or more of goodbyes and preparation. Blessed now by informing our living. May our awareness of mortality paradoxically bring us peace to focus on the important: love, truth, beauty, connection, service. May we let go of pretending, and make space for the presence of reality. Of God.  And may we have courage to realise, that is actually what matters and what is promised as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Warren's chapter ends with this:

We are dying, each and all. Yet the kind of blessing we most need is the kind that comes to the dying--a blessing we live our life avoiding, a blessing found only in darkness.  In the pace of deepest desolation, we meet God himself. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Partnership of Parenting

 Parenting. A rich concept and word that provides the foundation for pretty much everything, encapsulates the generous love of God, forms our earliest and most powerful memories and human bonds, and not surprisingly also becomes the locus of our deep pain and failure. None of us receive or dispense perfect parenting, but we all relate across cultures and languages and time to the goal. At Christ School Bundibugyo, parents are our partners in blessing the youth of this place. They bring us their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and neighbours, whom they have struggled to keep alive and growing, and entrust our staff and administration and the mission to care for them for four to six formative adolescent and young adult years. They want academic achievement that prepares their student for a sustainable future, and they want character development that solidifies their child's respect for the culture and the country and the earth. We want the same. Academic excellence and spiritual transformation. Together our hope is to enable these kids to become "servant leaders", the operative paradox of CSB. That means people with the capacity to lead and the heart to serve, people who invest in the good of Bundibugyo and the glory of God. People whose metric is not personal fame or wealth or honour or power, but "well done good and faithful servant" effective use of their gifts to bless all. 

The parents depend on us to teach their children. And to provide spiritual truths, visible role models, safe dorms, clean bathing and latrine structures, sport and club opportunities, protection from harm, focus on what matters, social interaction, a healthy rhythm of fun and sleep and work. We depend upon parents to provide school fees that cover about half of the actual costs of running the school (and we depend upon donors for the rest). To keep the partnership strong, to provide accountability and community, we try to have an all-day parent event at least annually. Reports from the Head Teacher, the Director of Spiritual Life, the Director of Development, the Chairman of the PTA and the Chairman of the Board. Songs from a student choir. An introduction and greeting by each of our 25 academic staff and a handful of support staff too. A meal of course, massive pots of steaming hot matoke, rice, beef stew, beans, ground nut sauce, cabbage. Informal conversations and mingling, formal questions and answers. 

Because of COVID shutting down schools for most of the 2020 and the 2021 academic years, we could not return to a "normal" school schedule until late January 2022. So as we began our third term of 2022 in September, we gathered all the parents for the first Parents' Day in three years on Friday. 

The day was as rich as the word parenting with which I began this post. Exhausting, yes, 8-9 hours is a long time to host and listen and translate and interact. The parents' main concern was financial, that they were struggling to be able to pay 50% of their subsidised school fee amount at the beginning of the term, a policy we had enforced in order to afford food for their children and payroll for the staff. We are all squeezed by the government changing term length from 12 to 14 weeks, changing the curriculum which requires new texts and materials, and by the inflation in prices of all food and commodities due to the war in Ukraine and other global trends. We have not increased fees in spite of those factors, so we really don't have margin for non-payment. We listened to their woes; we tried to explain the pressures on the school too.

Staff Introductions

Head Teacher Peter giving report

Scott as chairman Board of Governors speaking to parents. Mike as Director of Spiritual Life and Patrick as Director of Academic Development also gave great talks.

But in spite of all our struggles, the general mood was so hopeful. We reviewed performance on national exams and rejoiced that most of the district's Division One (top) students came from CSB, and almost all the students who qualified for national university scholarships were ours. We heard about class trips, extra effort to catch up from lost time, study camps during break times. Parents have noticed. This year we had 107 students in our S1 class meant for 60, and had to turn another hundred away. The low fees and the solid education translate into value, and our culture here (like most others) delights in a bargain. Our dorms are packed full. But the algebra of more kids, more staff, more meals, more needs, when fees are kept affordable but costs keep rising, becomes complex to solve. We live by faith, yet again.

As we prepared for this meeting, Scott put together a lovely slide show of the new chapel, the new perimeter fence, the renovated staff housing, the new classrooms, the growing staff, all the ways that the school has inexplicably been blessed even during a few of the most challenging years ever. He wanted parents to feel secure in God's love and our commitment . . . and yet to also want to invest their hard-wrought cash. It's hard to hold onto both. Peter, our new head teacher, ended his report with four prayer requests for parents, and that is a good ending here. We do our best, but our best is never going to get us through without prayer.  Please join the parents in praying for  1. The upcoming month of national finishing exams for S4 (UCE, "O Level") and S6 (UACE, "A Level") graduating students , 2. The other four classes to study and behave in ways commensurate with promotion, 3. Financial provision for parents and donors in spite of inflation, and 4. "A good ending of the year". We seem to be on target for that!

Perks of getting old: we were around when this midwife Rose, our colleague, gave birth to this daughter Judith, named for my mom, and now Rose is a key CSB Parent and Judith is a star pupil

Desmond and Scott have carried the CSB vision through many trials and changes for over twenty years.

The outgoing PTA chairman Edison was one of the first people in this area to meet and welcome our team

John our next door neighbour since he was a baby, grew up with our kids, went to CSB in one of their classes, and is now our key mission administrator with his CPA license. He serves as Deputy Chairman when Scott is out of the district. We rely on him a lot! This last photo really shows the fulfilment of the servant leader goal.

PS. Sorry this blog has been silent for over a month . . . we traveled to the USA for a Serge meeting, saw both moms and all our kids, officiated a wedding and visited a few friends, did not repeat the bike accident disaster that I had before this same meeting last year (!) but had decent medical follow ups. We flew back to Uganda just over a week ago and have been back in Bundi for four days. It's been a lot of travel, time zones, people, interactions and we wanted to be present for family and for Serge leaders. But it's good to be back home in Bundibugyo! And if you're seeing Uganda in the news for Ebola, yes, there is a new epidemic but it's over a hundred miles away and so far the country is responding with their usual skill and zeal. We are fine here.